on July 11, 2002
It's pretty hard not to be impressed with this thing, with its amazing scholarship and spectacular writing. In fact, I don't know that I've ever come across a novel like it, with its poems and its letters and its diaries and its fairy-tale stories. This is literature with a capital "L," so much so that you almost feel you have to genuflect before it every time you pick it up.
The story has to do with a contemporary English "Ash" scholar, who discovers while poking around in the dusty old library what appear to be drafts of heretofore undiscovered love letters, written in the hand of Ash. Randolph Ash, by the way, is a fictionalized major English Victorian poet--probably on a par with Browning or Tennyson--and wasn't known to have had a relationship with any other woman than his wife. After a little detective work, our scholar discovers the identity of Ash's love interest, who it turns out was also a poet--fictionalized Christabel LaMotte. With the help of a female LaMotte scholar, the two then begin an odyssey of literary discovery, uncovering truths in the lives of these literary giants to whom they have spent their young lives studying. To add interest to this already interesting plot is some suspense, in that other, less-altruistic scholars appear to be on their heels, and also there is the smoldering love interest between these two.
It is an excellent story but what is truly remarkable about this novel is that Ms. Byatt has also added large chunks of these poets' literary works. There are numerous lengthy poems by both Ash and LaMotte. There are some of LaMotte's stories. There are the letters themselves, written in Victorian prose, and comprising about forty pages worth of text. There is part of the diary written by Ash's wife. And finally, there is a lengthy diary written by LaMotte's cousin, which solves one mystery and opens the door to another.
The poetry is superb, excellent on its own, and with each poet displaying a distinct style. The letters also, which begin in a somewhat dry, Victorian way, eventually become more emotional, and quite moving. On top of everything else, these literary creations add a great deal to what we know of Ash and LaMotte, illuminating their character and making them more complex. Indeed, through their works alone, we come to feel a great deal of empathy for both of them.
It is a novel which works on many different levels: there is the juxtaposition of the manners and morals of today compared with those of 150 years ago; there is the competition in the trenches of Academe; there is the suspenseful plot; there is the beauty of the poems and letters themselves; and finally, most incredibly, we see how the poems themselves function as metaphors for both the newly discovered love between Ash and Christabel, and the burgeoning love exhibited by those who followed them. It is also an interesting treatise on art, how it is created, and what in the human heart occasionally allows it to flourish.
With that said, however, be prepared to be patient. The plot stops dead, often, and the reader is suddenly confronted with forty pages of diaries, or six pages of some epic poem. Take a break if you must, but don't skip over them. Read them. Take your time doing so, and in the end you will find that it has been a very rewarding experience.
on July 29, 2000
Possession, labeled a romance, is certainly that. But it is also much, much more. The book is a tremendous undertaking of style and verve, a romance on two levels, and a bizarre detective story all rolled into one.
The main characters of Possesion are Roland Michell, a true academic and Maud Bailey, a researcher, but the stars of the book are really the long-dead R.H. Ash and Christabel LaMotte.
In Possession, Byatt gives much attention to minor detail. In fact, her detailing is so subtle that many nuances may be missed on a first reading.
Byatt's writing is beautiful and filled with simple, descriptive language and gorgeous imagery. The majority of the story is rich in both metaphor and allusion, with the following passage being a prime example: "One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud's bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase."
Most of the chapters in Possession begin with a fictitious work by Ash or LaMotte, but Byatt has not only written them well, she has fashioned each so that it is in keeping with the character of its fictitious author.
Ash and LaMotte are both of the Romantic period, yet Ash is more open and free than is LaMotte, who writes with obvious rhyme and rhythm. It is this--Byatt's ability to create so many different writing styles for each of her characters and fit them to the character so perfectly, that makes Possession come to life for the reader.
Possession is not a straightforward narrative, however. Much of the story is told through the letters of Ash and LaMotte, again, beautifully crafted by Byatt. It is through their letters that we really get to know Ash and LaMotte as well as Roland and Maud. The knowledge gained in the past relationship between Ash and LaMotte allows the present-day relationship between Roland and Maud to come to life.
Possession is a story of lost romantic love and, as such, it may seem, at first glance, to be just another trite book on a trite and overly-written subject. Nothing could be further from the truth. Byatt has conferred a freshness of outlook on Possession that makes it unlike any other novel of failed romance and love gone wrong.
Roland and Maud are, without a doubt, two quite ordinary people. But Byatt has given them something quite extraordinary to do. These two would-be lovers are actually on a quest, and their lives, as well as their love, seem to mirror and parallel Ash and LaMotte's in more ways than one.
But all is certainly not smooth sailing for Roland and Maud. Roland has Val, his live-in lover to deal with and Val, unlike many an "unwanted" lover is not a woman to be summarily dismissed.
What really makes Possession sparkle and sets it apart from any other typical romance is the connection Roland and Maud have to the past and to Ash and LaMotte. This adds a mystical, almost surreal, quality to the story that could have so easily turned maudlin in the hands of a writer less talented than Byatt. Byatt, however, intertwines past and present with perfection and keeps the reader spellbound with the suspension of disbelief.
A few passages containing expletives seem out of place in this otherwise dazzling novel and really seem beneath the obvious talent and ability of a first-class writer like Byatt.
Byatt has titled her novel perfectly. The word, "possession," crops out several times throughout the story: the possession of the stolen letters, the possession of the lovers to each other, the possession of the past to the present. Byatt obviously began working with the motif of possession in mind.
While certainly not of the romance genre, Possession contains enough romance to satisfy even the most voracious. The characters are creations of tremendous depth and we find it easy to love them or hate them or pity them, but never dismiss them.
The intertwining plots work on many levels and work so well that many readers will often find themselves wondering if the story is purely fiction or based in reality.
Finally, the beautiful writing captures and holds the reader's attention and adds to the fantasy that is unfolding. Although some readers might find the many letters and poems contained in this book distracting, they do enrich the story and lend a depth that would definitely be lost had Byatt failed to included them.
A finely-crafted novel of parallel lives and parallel loves, Possession is, for the most part, a lyrical look, not at what really was, but what so easily could have been.
Having read a collection of short stories by A.S. Byatt, I was already a fan. However, it was for the work of director Neil Labute that I went to see the movie, "Possession", and only then did I realize it was based on what is purported to be Byatt's most important work. I wondered what could make LaBute leave his sardonic field of original screenwriting and adapt this book to a screenplay...and I must say, with some sadness, that his film was only adequate. However, as he must have, I found the plot was truly unique and the concept of possession so interwoven in each character, amazing. And then, the relationship between the two 19th century poets was so moving, I decided to tackle the novel.
It is exquisite.
First, Byatt, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, discards the concept of a "novel" and subtitles it, "A Romance". Whether she realized it or not, this would result in many "romance novel" readers trying to tackle her 1990 masterpiece, only to discard it as "too long and boring". But Byatt persisted in the classification of a "romance" after taking the meaning of the prose of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote:
"When a writer calls his work a Romance....while as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart -- has fairly a right to present that under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer's own choosing."
Here, Byatt boldly invents two 19th century writers. Stunningly, she juxtaposes their existence with real writers of the period...Lord Tennyson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Christina Rossetti, Crabb Robinson, etc. She creates long passages of their work, both prose and poetry (some of it epic) and their letters to each other. It is if she gets inside of their heads and has written, disembodied, as each in the language and the culture of the times. Moreover, she instills their work with passages that clarify what was the mystery of their romance. Passages that only become clear when modern day scholars discover the romance, and can attribute the commonality and beauty in each of their works to their love for one another. Most readers will assume that Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, really existed, and will only realize they are fictional after checking search engines carefully!
Many others have outlined the plotting here - the parallel story of two modern-day scholars following an inexact trail of evidence they unearth, to document a love story that takes the literary world by storm. Both the modern day and the Victorian romance are between participants (Maud and Roland in this century, Ash and Christabel in the 19th) who are somewhat aloof from the world, imbued by their studies and crafts, and content with solitary existences...almost afraid to give themselves to another in a relationship. Byatt skillfully uses dialogue, the content of letters and poems, and symbolism...the dissection of sea creatures by Ash on his journeys, the stark yearning for the "solitary, empty white bed" that Maud and Roland both desire.
The very creation of this work, which won the UK's Booker prize in 1990, and the lasting regard with which it is held, will make it a classic. So, too, will the richness of Byatt's writing and research, and the thrill of the mystery that surrounds Ash and Christabel...and how it is finally solved by the modern day seekers. It is compelling in its second half, beautiful, though somewhat difficult to read in its first. If you must skim the letters and poems in your first read, be sure to read them carefully when you finally pick up the book again (and you will!) because elements of mystery, relationship, manners and morals will all reveal themselves to you, enhancing the story. Think, too, on the layers and layers of "possession" or obsessiveness that are shown by both major and well-sketched minor characters in both time periods of the book.
A timeless book, with some sardonic wit that pokes fun at academic society, the somewhat boorish mannerisms of Americans abroad, and the clash between the world and the feminist movement...this is a gem, to be treasured and kept on bookshelves forever.
Highly recommended for serious readers.
on February 4, 2002
"The book was thick and black and covered with dust." It is not a coincidence that the first two words of this remarkable novel are, "the book." Possession is a book about books, about the study and love of literature and the intricate obsession with the lives of literary figures shared by academics, historians, and the randomly curious public. It tells the story of a quiet literary scholar, Roland Michell, who finds a lost letter from the great Victorian poet, R.H. Ash, to another famous poet of the day, Christabel LaMotte. As he is an Ash scholar, Roland takes the letter to a LaMotte scholar named Maude Bailey, and together they begin a search to uncover the relationship between the two. It is a discovery that will have repercussions in the academic world and in their own lives. If you tend to lose yourself in second-hand bookstores, are ravenously curious about the lives of the authors whose works you read, or simply love a great romantic mystery, you will love this book, which won the Booker prize, England's highest literary award.
A.S. Byatt is herself a formidable scholar of literature who left a teaching career at London College in 1983 to write full-time. One day while in the British Museum Library, she spotted a well-known Coleridge scholar. It occurred to Byatt that much of what she knew about the Romantic poet had been filtered through the mind of that scholar. She mused about the effect that such a single-minded pursuit must have on a person. "I thought," she said, "it's almost like a case of demonic possession, and I wondered - has she eaten up his life or has he eaten up hers?" She had an idea to write a book about two famous authors and two scholars who study their lives.
Byatt created two fictional poets, loosely based on Robert Browning and Christina Rosetti, named Randolph Henry Ash, and Christabel LaMotte. The marvel of the novel is that Byatt creates not just the poets, but also their poetry. Calling on her extensive knowledge of Victorian literature, she intersperses the narrative with their poetry, prose, tales, and even literary criticism about the works of these fictional characters. It is, to use an over-taxed phrase, a tour de force. The poems are beautiful in their own right. I confess that my first time through this novel I went to my Norton Anthology of English Literature and looked for R.H. Ash. I was frankly amazed that the author could switch from style to style and write such beautiful verse. The third time through the book, I was struck by the way the poetry also illuminates the narrative.
Roland Michell and Maude Bailey, our two protagonists, feel most uncomfortable in a modern setting and turn to the past for answers. As they connect to the lives of the poets through their letters, they find strength within themselves to live meaningful lives. Byatt's genius for metaphor connects the two couples over and over. Notice the use of color: greens for the feminine and grays and blacks for the masculine characters. Cropper wears Ash's watch, Maude wears LaMotte's brooch. Symbols of confinement and release are paired: the glass coffin and the library cubicle, the green Beetle and the serpent Melusine, the short-lived Eden of Yorkshire and Roland's forbidden garden. As the story builds toward its climax, the images pile up, as it were, until everything and everyone meets in one place, in one very cinematic scene, to uncover the truth. Yet, even with all the romantic drama, Byatt never loses contact with books, with the fact that it is through reading and writing that human beings make contact with their finer selves.
Those who write biography or study history know that every life has a story, but also that we can never tell the story exactly as it was. There is no final truth in history, but only interpretation and recreation. We read the journals of our ancestors and wonder what was not said that would have been most enlightening, as we try to extract a vision of their reality from the clues left to us. Roland and Maude, after years of studying these poets, have a deeply personal regard for them and a desire to protect their privacy. When Roland discovers a correspondence between the poets, he knows that a media sensation will ensue in which every personal detail of their lives will be open to exposure. He resents this, yet is drawn by curiosity about them to investigate further, which eventually causes everything to come to light. In a highly readable series of events, Byatt takes us deeper and deeper into these lives, switching from past to present and back to the past. Finally, after all is revealed, Byatt shares one more crucial detail with the reader that is never revealed to the other characters. It is her way of letting us know at the end that the full story of any other life will always be, to some extent, a mystery.
on January 19, 2008
Re-reading this novel again, I was reminded of every reason why I didn't quite fall head over heels the first time out. And there is a reason for it. I find that "Possession" really, really stalls when it comes to a repeat reading. My first reading of the book took almost a month - this has got to be one of the toughest books to get through (Ian McEwans' latest "Atonement" is another of these types of books).
Fond as I am of exceeding detail to plot and character development, there is a point at which the writer is too good for the story he is creating. I am not saying this happened here, but Byatt's stunning use of language sometimes undoes the original intent. Readers of straight-forward novels could not possibly find it in them to sustain interest in this.
The primary problem is a very incoherent structure. Just when a plot is being developed or a discovery being made, Byatt kills the narrative by injecting ten pages of a poet's long lost work, or the maddeningly boring inclusion of a dead poets' diary. While everything IS pertinent and makes perfect sense considering the entire books' real heroes are the Victorian poets who are under scrutiny, I could not imagine anything possibly revelatory about the characters from these humdrum passages. Seriously, I found them tiresome and extremely non-essential, to say the least.
If you've watched the cinematic endeavor that this book spawned, you would well do to remind yourself that this holds more detail than the movie did. In fact, the main character here, who was essayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in the film, seems so unlike Paltrow in every way. Also, the two scholars seemed almost bipolar in their mood-swings, which seemed to affect their decisions and words every thirty pages or so. This was not a concern for me, just an observation.
The good part is that the entire novel is gorgeously written, and is a very symbol of the best we come to expect from the English language. Poetry and Prose combine beautifully and its no surprise this has become essential reading in some universities. And though I do love classics, I think I'm going to probably stick to my Whartons and Burneys for now, because either I do not 'get' Byatt, or her writing style is most definitely an acquired taste.
I would suggest reading a few more reviews before making an informed decision. Remember though - this is a book to invest yourself in completely, as it is most certainly not a fly-by-night experience.
on April 27, 2002
I took out Possession twice from the library. I couldn't finish it the first time... it was so DENSE. (A very common reaction, I've since learned, when reading Possession.) But after you get over a particular section involving very long-winded letters between two Victorian poets, the story goes reeling and I ended up in tears near the end... I can still quote from the letter Christabel LaMotte wrote to Ash, a letter that never reached him.
Hell. Who DOESN'T want to have loved somebody that much?
I don't think many critics have mentioned this, but to me, the supporting characters really MAKE the book. I was touched by Byatt's knowing yet sympathetic portrayal of Ellen Ash, who very secretly wished to be a poet but became the lantern bearer for one instead, or of Dr. Beatrice Nest, a mild literary scholar working on "womanly work" when she really wants to sink her teeth into what truly makes her tick, the painter Blanche Glover and her descriptions of light and the depiction of force (the complete text of her suicide note is given at one point)... there's a very, very moving passage around the end of the book where Ellen sifts through the remains of Ash's things and decides what to do with Christabel's letter.
For the aspiring writers out there, there's an important passage on words around the end where Roland suddenly discover's he's a poet and the poems "fall like rain." I know everyone hates the poems but they are really worth reading and thinking about; if you like Emily Dickinson you'll love Christabel's poems. I hope Byatt has the full text of "Ask and Embla" somewhere.
The best thing about Possession is that it understands people who think literature MEANS something beyond being a lovely way to kill time. It understands those quiet but passionate people you see browsing in bookstores, who write reviews on Amazon.com, who, at a used bookstore, find joy in finding an out-of-print-book they've been DYING to read for years. It's a book that understands YOU.
on March 14, 2000
Possession is not only the incredibly apt title but also the way I feel about this book. While reading it I hesitated to tell my friends about the wonderful new book that had me so enthralled. I felt as though I was with Maud and Roland while they tromped over Europe. I became as possessive about the letters as the fictitious characters themselves. The book became my three day obsession.
I have read every other review about it and I won't lie and say that the prose wasn't stilted at times. It was. The story is certainly easily transparent and I had guessed the ending of the book 175 pages before it happened.
But all of that is superfluous. I have not read a book comparable to this one in regards to pure creativity for quite some time. I admired the ingenuity of Ms. Byatt with every turn of the page. She not only created believable characters, but she created a literary history that spanned nearly two hundred years. From nothing Ms. Byatt created distinctively different poetry in the voice of two, fictitious, Victorian poets. She also created love letters between the two. She created fictitious literary analyses of the fictitious poetry. For that feat alone, I admire her and this book.
And I would read it all over again, twenty times, for the simple post script which, I feel, summed up the book better than anything I could've ever imagined.
on April 10, 2002
Possession is probably the most difficult but unique book I have ever read. A.S. Byatt is obviously very talented and much deserving of the Booker Prize. Possession is truly a tour-de-force of many facets, although the writing style and complexity of the story may be a bit much for some.
Roland Michell, an academic and researcher of the 19th century poet, Randolph Henry Ash, has stumbled across something that could change the very foundation of his research: two drafts of a letter that Ash sent to a mysterious woman, who later is found to be another poet, Christabel LaMotte. Roland enlists the help of the LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey, to fit the puzzle pieces together. The fact that Ash is married and LaMotte a supposed lesbian and feminist makes this journey of discovery one that will change the face of history as they've known it. And as their research takes them further along, the mystery and suspense builds, letter by letter, until the fascinating climax at the novel's end.
This book, regardless of its stunning display of talent, will not be for everyone. It took me on a roller coaster ride throughout with its high and low points as my interest in the story waxed and waned. Interspersed with poetry, diary entries, letters, and passages from books makes Possession a very unique and creative novel; however, these things which make it unique also has the capacity to tear it down -- some of the poetry could have been left out, and the letters, albeit important to the story, were at times laborous.
Possession is a literature buff's dream novel. Reader's who enjoy 19th century British literature and can actually understand poetry of that century will get more out of this novel than I did. Throughout my reading, my rating hovered between 3 and 4 stars, but decided to round up simply for the fact that Possession is truly a novel of dynamic proportions. It'll just take me a second read-around to understand it better.
on February 22, 2003
I put off buying this book for a long time after reading some of the unfavourable reviews it received on Amazon.com. (e.g. that the book is difficult to read, boring, overly long, dense, etc). But in January, I watched the 2002 movie adaptation (starring Gwyneth Paltrow) and immediately fell in love with the story. I knew then I just HAD to read the novel to experience fully the beauty of the story and its characters. I'm so glad I finally did, and would recommend this title if you're looking for a unique and engaging reading experience.
"Possession" is not exactly a light read, but once you get past the first 30 pages or so, you'll get the hang of Byatt's writing style and be fully drawn into the story. The novel opens with the introduction of the character Roland Mitchell, a young Brit graduate in mid-1980s London who works part-time at the British Museum assisting in research work on the famous (but fictional) Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash. Roland's a "penniless" bloke, but he's nice looking, hardworking and kind. One day as he's researching his work at the library, he discovers between the leaves of a reference book (which had once belonged to Ash), 2 letters in Ash's handwriting. They appear to be draft correspondence to an unnamed woman. Excited and intrigued, Roland pockets the letters and decides to investigate this secret life of Ash's (this is because based on the biographies written on him, Ash was supposed to be a happily married man). The significance is that if it's discovered now that he had led a "second life", the discovery would change the modern literary world's interpretation of Ash's poems.
Roland soon finds a vague link between Ash's letters and a 19th century reclusive poetess named Christabel La Motte. To find out more about La Motte, he enlists the help of Dr Maud Bailey (a La Motte scholar). Initially, Maud is reluctant to get involved in Roland's investigation as she doesn't believe there existed any romantic connection between the 2 poets (what's more, La Motte was widely believed to be a lesbian). Roland finds it difficult to communicate with Maud because of her cold and distant behaviour towards him (like an "ice queen"). Maud is young, rich and beautiful with long blonde hair (which she hides under a scarf at all times - find out "why" from the book).
Their investigation takes them to various parts of England including La Motte's ancestral home (now home to the cranky Sir George Bailey). I like the scene in La Motte's bedroom (in Sir George's house), where everything in her room is left "preserved" and undisturbed after her death, including a series of dolls propped against a pillow. In this room, Maud and Roland ingeniously discover a bundle of love letters written by Ash and La Motte to each other. I think that the letters and excerpts from diaries should be read in full as they are important to the story. I also think it's alright to skip reading the longer and complex poems as it won't affect one's understanding of the story.
While intensely trailing the love affair of the 2 poets, Roland and Maud become "intoxicated" and infected by the "air of romance" in their investigation and start to draw close to each other. You must read how Roland finally melts and conquers the heart of the "ice queen". It's very romantic.
So this novel gives us two romances (from 2 different centuries) and a gripping "detective" story. What a treat! The Victorian love story is beautiful, passionate and has a compelling and unexpected ending. The contemporary romance is believable, moving and honest. I opine that roughly, the former takes up 40% of the book, the latter 30% and the remaining 30% consists of Victorian poems and excerpts from diaries.
I loved this book. I didn't find it a dull read at all! It sure deserves the Booker Prize it won in 1990. And oh, watch the movie too! Both are highly recommended!
on January 5, 2007
This is one of the best books I have read. It combines poetry, romance, and a detective story--what more could you ask for? While the subject is academic, the prose is lively and engaging and you can't wait to see what will happen next. It's like a literary "Da Vinci Code" without the continuous cheesy escapes. If you are looking for a "romance novel," then this isn't for you. If you seek a thought-provoking work that will move you, then pick this up.